Miracles in the Life and Thought of Rabbi Barukh Rabinowicz

It is said that the Munkatcher hassidim have three Rebbes: “The Rebbe Zatsa”l,” “The Rebbe Shelit”a,” and “The Rebbe ye-Mah Shemo. Much is written about “The Rebbe Zatsa”l,” R. Hayyim El’azar Spira, known colloquially as the Minhas Elazar (the title of his responsa),[i] and R. Moshe Leib Rabinovich, “The Rebbe Shelit”a,” currently leads the Munkatcher hassidim. But of “The Rebbe ye-Mah Shemo,” R. Barukh Rabinowicz, not much is known. This article is about “The Rebbe ye-Mah Shemo.”

Born in 1914 to R. Natan David of Parczew, R. Barukh showed enough promise in his learning as a young man that the Minhas Elazar deemed him suitable for his daughter, and the two were married in a ceremony that was televised across the world.[ii] When the Minhas Elazar died in 1937, R. Barukh took over the leadership of the Munkatcher hassidim. Soon afterwards, however, the Nazis came to power, and R. Barukh found himself fleeing for his life from Munkatch, eventually reaching Budapest. There he was heavily involved in efforts to rescue Jews from the clutches of the Nazis and eventually escaped to Palestine himself in 1944.[iii]

During this time, R. Barukh’s ideology shifted dramatically, particularly his attitude toward Zionism. Before the war, R. Barukh had been part of a tradition of Orthodox opposition to Zionism. His father was an avowed anti-Zionist, characterizing the Wicked Son of the seder as “the opinion that has appeared in our days, because of our many sins, of people who wish to flee to Palestine.”[iv] He also concluded his living will by imploring his children to not be Zionists.[v] This is to say nothing of R. Barukh’s father-in-law, the Minhas Elazar, who was the unquestioned leader of Orthodox anti-Zionism in pre-war Europe.[vi] R. Barukh himself, in an introduction to a haggadah featuring insights of the Minhas Elazar, writes that Jews can only be redeemed from exile through direct divine intervention, to the exclusion of physical intervention by human beings, an explicitly anti-Zionist idea.[vii]

However, by 1946, R. Barukh had changed his outlook. At a rally that year calling to open the borders of Palestine to war refugees, R. Barukh spoke about the inseparable link between Israel and the Jewish people and the value of making aliyyah, adding that “each and every aliyyah only brings comfort to the mourning land and renews her youth with prosperity and vigor.”[viii] He also entered his candidacy for the position of chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, competing against R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik and R. Isser Yehuda Unterman. Such a change in ideology, from an anti-Zionist successor of the Minhas Elazar to a candidate for chief rabbi of an important Zionist city who spoke about the value of Erets Yisra’el and aliyyah, is remarkable. What caused this radical shift?

The closest R. Barukh came to answering this question was in an essay entitled “Einei ha-Edah,” printed in 1980, decades after the establishment of the State of Israel.[ix] He begins the essay by asserting that the national revival and newly won independence of the Jewish people, especially seen against the backdrop of the Holocaust, is an open and revealed miracle. He writes: “Who could have hoped for, who would have believed thirty years ago that [the nation] would return to live free, and it would be given lofty powers of strength and security! We stand and exclaim, ‘Who bore me these?’[x] Is this not a miracle?” This assertion, made without any justification, raises a difficult question. If it is indeed true that the national revival of the Jewish people is an “open and revealed miracle,” then why is it not recognized by all as such? Why did there remain both secular Israelis unaffected in the slightest by this alleged open and revealed miracle, as well as anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews who refused to accept this new Jewish state as legitimate?

R. Barukh continues by claiming that, nevertheless, “the miracle is revealed, but not all see it.” He compares a miraculous event to a sudden flash of extremely bright light. Such a light, if one is not prepared for it, will merely cause temporary blindness, rather than any sort of illumination. It is only with the proper preparation and adjustment that such a light would provide any illumination. To illustrate this abstract concept, R. Barukh references the story of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart during the ten plagues in Egypt:

“The commentators ask, how could God nullify Pharaoh’s free will? Specifically difficult is the verse that states “For I have hardened his heart”[xi] There are many explanations, implausible and plausible, given for this. But at its essential level, the matter is not difficult at all. The essence of God’s appearance in His miracles and wonders before Pharaoh, when the latter was not ready for it, and was unable, due to his actions and upbringing, to be ready for it, ends up causing Pharaoh to not see the miracles and wonders at all, and he instead perceives them as natural or magical occurrences. The light was greater than what Pharaoh could stand. The work that God had caused hardened [Pharaoh's] heart. For this is the literal meaning of the verse “For I [emphasis Rabinowicz’s] have hardened his heart.”

            In other words, God does not just swoop down into Pharaoh’s brain and switch off his ability to make rational decisions. Rather, God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart by way of the plagues themselves. Pharaoh, due to his upbringing and personality, does not have the ability to perceive the events transpiring in front of him as being direct divine intervention. Instead, he reinterprets them to fit his preconceived notions, which famously exclude the Israelite God he has previously never heard of. Each plague, rather than causing him to reconsider his position on Israelite theology and enslavement, actually pushes him deeper and deeper into denial as he rationalizes every single possible supernatural element, perceiving each miracle as a mere freak occurrence, so as not to disturb his previously held beliefs. The miracles of the plagues present a light that Pharaoh is unprepared for, and thus it blinds him from seeing the reality in front of him.

R. Barukh then applies this concept to his day:

In our time, we see this phenomenon in its full form. There is no doubt that a great light has been revealed to us. Things have happened to us that do not happen to other nations by the laws of nature. The speedy recovery from the Holocaust and the transition to lives of full freedom are explicit testimony to the guarantee of a higher power coming to fulfill the promise: “And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly.”[xii] Even so, many have not opened their eyes to see this reality that is very wondrous and very real, and in the place of ascribing all that has occurred in front of our eyes to a higher power, they ascribe it to the random chain of events.

To R. Barukh, when human beings are confronted with a miraculous event whose ramifications contradict their preexisting ideology, they can and will rationalize the event to fit with their beliefs no matter how much they have to twist logic to do so. This tendency perverts the very purpose of miracles. For R. Barukh, the fact that God intervenes in history by performing miracles lends those events significance that cannot be ignored or rationalized away. When an event occurs that seems to be miraculous, it is incumbent upon its observers to take the event seriously, and if that entails critical re-examination of long held beliefs, so be it.

It is in those lines that the key to R. Barukh’s transformation lies. Despite being brought up in a culture of anti-Zionism, R. Barukh did not exhibit an extremist personality, of the sort who would rather deny reality than deny long-held beliefs. On the contrary, his opinions on miracles show him to prioritize an honest assessment of divinely engineered reality over maintaining one’s particular ideology. At the most essential level, he changed his position on Zionism because he looked around at the post-Holocaust world and decided that being a Zionist merely made sense given the conditions around him. Once it appeared conclusively clear to him that the Zionist enterprise had arranged a place for Jews to escape the horrors he had seen in Europe, that became significant as an act of God engineered specifically for such a purpose, the more so when the state was established. To continue to maintain an anti-Zionist position in the face of such reality is not only foolhardy, according to R. Barukh; it may even border on heresy.

This change in ideology did not come without a cost, however. His hassidim felt betrayed by this strange new direction their Rebbe had taken, and, in 1965, crowned R. Barukh’s son, R. Moshe Leib, in his stead.[xiii] They then set about trying to whitewash the Zionist “Rebbe ye-Mah Shemo” from their history. In a hagiography of the Minhas Elazar printed in 1998 by the publishing house of the Munkatcher hassidim,[xiv] R. Barukh, who would presumably bear mention as the Minhas Elazar’s student, son-in-law, and successor, is not mentioned once. Even in a twenty-page, detailed account of the wedding of the Minhas Elazar’s only daughter, the name of the groom is conspicuously absent. The Jewish Press, when reporting on R. Moshe Leib, will list his genealogy and conspicuously skip over his father.[xv]

Abandoned by the world that raised him, R. Barukh did not have any better luck with the Zionist world he had chosen to embrace. He dropped out of the candidacy for chief rabbi of Tel Aviv when it became clear he would not win.  Evidently, some still believed him to be aligned with his famously anti-Zionist predecessor. Dr. Hayyim Kugel, former head of the Zionist Gymnasium in Munkatch, wrote a letter to the editor in the Davar newspaper, assailing R. Barukh’s candidacy by attacking the notion that a man who had been such a prominent anti-Zionist before the war could possibly be afforded a position in the first Hebrew city.[xvi] Unable to find a job in Israel, he went to South America to earn a livelihood and became chief rabbi of Sao Paulo, Brazil until 1962, when he was finally appointed chief rabbi of Holon, an Israeli city north of Tel Aviv. He served in this capacity until his retirement, at which point he moved to Petah Tikvah where he founded and led a shul until his death in 1997.

At the end of his life, he wrote two books. One, Divrei Nevonim, is a collection of his thoughts on the weekly parashah. The other, Binat Nevonim, is a philosophical work on the Holocaust, which probably merits an article all its own. Those books are in the YU Gottesman Library, and as far as I can tell, I am the only person to have ever taken them out. I find it tragic that such a fascinating and great mind, a man who had the intelligence and bravery to turn his back on an ideology he felt could not respond to the world as he saw it, no matter the consequences, has been relegated to the dustbin of history. As a historical figure and as a thinker, R. Barukh Rabinowicz deserves more scholarly attention, and this article only scratches the surface of a truly fascinating personality.


Akiva Weisinger is a junior in YC majoring in Jewish Studies, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser. R. Barukh Rabinowicz was his great-grandmother’s brother.

[i]    R. Hayyim El’azar Shapira, She’elot u-Teshuvot Minhat El’azar (Jerusalem: Or Torat Munkatch, 1995) (Hebrew), available at http://hebrewbooks.org/10155.

[ii]    The video can still be found online, http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1622609518319953327.

[iii]   For biographical information on R. Barukh, see Peska Friedman, Going Forward: A True Story of Courage, Hope, and Perserverance (Brooklyn, NY, Mesorah Publications, 1994); Esther Farbstein, “The Rabbi, The Youth, and the Refugees in Budapest, 1944,” Dapim le-Heker ha-Sho’ah 20 (2005-2006) 85-111, available at http://holocaust2.haifa.ac.il/images/dapim20/dapim_20_3.pdf (Hebrew); Esther Farbstein, “Miracle By Miracle” in Esther Farbstein, The Forgotten Memoirs (Brooklyn, NY: Shaar Press, 2011), 317-343; and  R. HayyimYehuda Grossman, “ha-Admo”r mi-Munkatz: ha-Rav Barukh Yehoshua Yerahmiel Rabinowicz Zats”al”, Shanah be-Shanah 39 (1998-1999): 561-566: (Hebrew)

[iv]   R. Natan David Rabinowicz, Sefer ve-Eleh ha-Devarim she-Neʼemru le-Daṿid. (Jerusalem: Nekhdei ha-Meḥaber, 1983), 192 (Hebrew), my translation. See also Mendel Pierkaz, ha-Hanhagah ha-Hassidit (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1999), 323-332 (Hebrew).

[v]    R. Natan David Rabinowicz, “Will of Rabbi Natan David Rabinowicz”, HebrewBooks.org http://www.hebrewbooks.org/34692 (Hebrew).

[vi]   See Allan Nadler, “The War on Modernity of R. Hayyim Elazar Shapira of Munkacz”, Modern Judaism 14:3 (1994), 239; and Aviezer Ravitzky, “Munkács and Jerusalem: Ultra-Orthodox opposition to Zionism and Agudaism,” in Zionism and Religion, ed. Shmuel Almog, Jehuda Reinharz, and Anita Shapira (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press in association with the Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History; University Press of New England, 1998), 67-89.

[vii]   Hayyim El’azar Shapira, Haggadah shel Pesah im Ma’amar Aggadata de-Piseha, (Munkatch, 1938), 9-10, available at http://hebrewbooks.org/4717.

There is, however, reason to question the extent of R’ Barukh’s anti-zionism. In the passage in question, he never explicitly mentions the Zionist enterprise, something from which his father and father-in-law evidently did not shy away. Further, there is the fact that, in seeming defiance of their father’s last will and testament, none of the Rabinowicz children were anti-Zionists as adults. Particularly interesting is the case of R. Barukh’s sister Devorah, who made aliyyah in 1934 and married the man who arranged for her aliyyah, R. Ya’akov Landau, a staunch religious Zionist who eventually founded the Israeli political party Po’alei Agudat Yisra’el and was present at the Declaration of Independence of Israel. While this is not enough to completely refute the written evidence that R. Barukh was indeed an anti-Zionist, it is enough to unsettle the matter.

[viii]  R. Barukh Rabinowicz, Binat Nevonim (Unpublished Manuscript), 8-9 (Hebrew), my translation.

[ix]   R. Barukh Rabinowicz, “Einei ha-Edah”, in Kuntres Divrei Torah ve-Hiddushim mi-Kevod Dodi ha-Ga’on Rabbi Barukh Yehoshua Yerahmiel Rabinowicz, (Benei Brak, Israel: Bar Nadri, 1980), found in Natan David Rabinowitz, Sefer Be’erot Natan (Bnei Brak, Israel: Bar Nadri, 1980) (Hebrew), my translation.

[x]    Isaiah 49:21, translated by Mechon Mamre, available at www.mechon-mamre.org.

[xi]   Exodus 10:1,  translated by Mechon Mamre, available at www.mechon-mamre.org.

[xii]   Leviticus 26:44, translated by Mechon Mamre, available at www.mechon-mamre.org.

[xiii]For the official version, see Moshe Goldstein, Journey To Jerusalem: The Historic Visit of the Minchas Eluzar of Munkacs to the Saba Kadisha, transl. by Malky Heimowitz, (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 2009), which, in an introduction describing the post-war renewal of Munkatcher hassidut, says the elders of Munkatch met and decided “the time had come for Munkatch to be born again,” neglecting to mention there already was, technically, a Rebbe of Munkatch. R. Barukh is there mentioned as “ha-Rav Rabinovich,” father of the brilliant prodigy Moshe Leib. Though there are few sources about the reasons for R. Baruch’s removal from the leadership, it is clear that the change in ideological direction played a large part in it. What is not so clear is whether it was the only thing; other Hassidic Rebbes made a similar change in ideology with less controversy, most notably R. Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam of Sanz-Klausenberg. A contributing factor may be the fact that R. Barukh was perceived as somewhat suspiciously modern even before the war. His sister Peska Friedman, in her memoirs (cited above), writes about how she and R. Barukh’s parents valued being well-educated and polished, and also writes about how R. Barukh’s hassidim, initially, “were somewhat wary of his long pants and tie tack”. That unease may have never fully gone away, and the rumors that swirl around the story generally can be reduced to the impression that R. Barukh, an avid reader and multilingualist who, after the war, studied philosophy and psychology in the University of Brazil and was comfortable enough with secular sources to quote Plato and Aristotle in some of his writings, was less “traditional” than his hassidim would have preferred. Additionally, the sources about R. Moshe Leib stress his close connection to the famously anti-Zionist R. Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar, and there is a possibility he was involved in the decision to dethrone R. Barukh. In sum, while R. Barukh’s Zionism was a key factor in his hassidim disowning him, it probably was not the only one, and more likely just a part of a larger issue. For a look at some of the wild speculation that occurs, see this blog post and the comments on it http://theantitzemach.blogspot.com/2009/02/munkacser-abdication-part-ii.html.

[xiv]  David Kahana, Toledot Rabbeinu, (Brooḳlyn, NY: Emet, 5758/1998) (Hebrew).

[xv]   Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum,“Grand Celebration in Munkatch, Ukraine,” The Jewish Press online edition, 29 June 2011.

[xvi]   Dr. Hayyim Kugel, “ha-Yitakhen?!” Davar, 30 May, 1946, available at www.jpress.org.il.